Useful Writing Tools — Five Digital Favorites

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Choosing digital writing tools can be just as idiosyncratic as selecting a favorite pen or brand of notebook. Keeping that in mind, here are five of my favorite tools for productivity and creativity:

1. Write or Die software, by Dr. Wicked’s Writing Lab 

The concept is simple. Set a timer and a word count, then enter your text in a box. If you don’t reach your writing quota by deadline, suffer the consequences—a loud, unpleasant alarm prodding at you, or worse—your writing being erased whenever your fingers stop moving. Your choice.

I love the simplicity. Great for when I need a little extra prod or the pressure of a deadline.

The downside: There’s always the chance your browser will freeze up or quit while you’re writing. This is less likely if you have a newer computer and a stable browser, and no other windows open at the time. Fortunately, more recent versions of this software include autosave options.

Link: Write or Die

2. Scrivener, from Literature and Latte (for Macs only)

Scrivener is a text editing program that’s designed to help writers organize large, unwieldy projects, like books. The interface is simple—a series of individual text documents are organized in panes so that you can see Chapters or project headings as you write. This is indispensable when writing multi-page documents that require significant sequencing.

I use Scrivener all the time for organizing web content projects, because it helps me “see” the web site, even if it hasn’t yet been designed. I also love that Scrivener docs are stripped of virtually all auto-formatting distractions (goodbye, MS Word!). This keeps the editing process 100% separate from the writing, enabling me to be purely creative in the space instead of getting bogged down by spelling, fonts, margins, and inappropriate or unwelcome grammar guidance.

Link: Scrivener

3. Google Docs

Google Docs are simple text editing equivalents of Word, Excel and PowerPoint that one can open, edit and share from within a Google account.

I was resistant at first to using Google’s stripped-down documents programs, but I became a convert in the middle of a large contract writing job. With deadlines every two days and dozens of revisions, after a while it became easier to open and review work in my web browser.

This is Google Docs’ real strength: fast access to working documents that change frequently. There’s no opening a new Finder window or waiting for Word or Excel to load. If you’re a user of Gmail, creating a new document and capturing a thought takes about five seconds.

I use Google Docs for everyday project management: keeping track of ongoing tasks via to do lists and content inventories. Keeping project information close to my email program instead of hidden in the depths of a forgotten folder is a nice convenience. It’s also nice knowing this fleeting, ever-changeable data isn’t sucking up valuable hard drive space.

4. Twitter

Yes, Twitter can be useful for something other than micro-blogging and promoting products. Three practical, everyday uses of Twitter for writers:

  1. Reminding oneself of things to do/investigate/write about/read later
  2. Collecting observations
  3. Fine-tuning the art of brevity

With only 140 characters of allotted space, Twitter is a fantastic tool for improving one’s ability to share information in a clear and concise manner: a skill set that’s increasingly important in this digital age.

5. Blogs

Blogging doesn’t need to be public; you can use your blog like I do, as a digital notebook. I use mine as a scratch pad for writing ideas and reactions to my reading. I find a blog is easier to skim and search than my own handwriting in a paper notebook. Capturing creative impulses digitally, then reviewing them once a week or so, allows me to get an overview of my thought process, so that I can identify persistent themes or ideas that might make for good future projects. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Create a plain, simple blog in whatever blogging program feels most intuitive to you (I like Typepad). Don’t worry about design.
  2. Opt not to include your blog in search engine results.
  3. Put a password on it, making it visible only to you.
  4. Set up post-by-email, so you can compose new posts in your email program and fire them off quickly.
  5. Later, when you have the time, log into your blog account and organize your posts by tag or category if you wish.

Regarding #5: I find simpler is better. Lately, the bulk of my posts fall into four categories: Ideas, Observations, Reading, and Brain Dumps. I think of the blog as a notebook where I store insights and inspiration, rather than actual writing; but you can use it in whatever manner works best for you.

So there they are: five tools I use regularly to organize my writing practice and keep my projects moving forward. What tools do you use, and how do you use them?

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